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Meeting examines economic concerns

As the state weathers the worse economic times in recent memory,the Mississippi Economic Council stopped in Brookhaven Wednesday toseek business leaders’ input on ways to better position the statewhen the economy improves.

During the local MEC Transformation Tour stop, the latest in aseries of events around the state, participants heard from MECofficials in person and several state leaders via video messagesregarding the challenges facing the state and how they need to beaddressed.

“We can’t just look at how things are, we have to look at howthings will be,” said Blake Wilson, MEC president.

Mayo Flint, MEC board chairman and president of AT&T,discussed the need to seek solutions from all parts of thestate.

“While issues can be resolved in Jackson, not all the answersare in Jackson,” Flint said.

The troubling budget situation was a recurring theme in stateleaders’ comments during the meeting.

Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant referenced recommendations he presentedearlier this week as part of the Commission on a New Mississippi.Bryant touted performance-based budgeting for state agencies andthe blending of some state agencies, and said he supported targetedtax cuts.

Rep. Percy Watson, chairman of the House Ways and MeansCommittee, said the state is facing “unprecedented challenges”regarding the budget.

“We’re having major shortfalls in terms of revenue,” Watsonsaid.

Watson said lawmakers when they convene in January will look atfunding essential services, stimulating spending in the state togenerate sales and income taxes, and boosting employment, all whileworking with the federal government as far as what assistance itcan provide.

“It is vitally necessary to get people back to work,” Watsonsaid.

Regarding consolidation or merger of state agencies andentities, something Gov. Haley Barbour suggested in his recentbudget recommendations, Wilson said MEC has not taken a position onthose issues. He said the goal is to get ideas out forconsideration.

“This is controversial everywhere in Mississippi,” Wilson saidof the consolidation talk.

Wilson acknowledged local community concerns regarding theMississippi School of the Arts, which Barbour suggested closing thecampus here and merging it with the Mississippi School for Math andScience in Columbus.

“We’re certainly aware of that and leadership is aware of that,”Wilson said.

Other education-related issues were also touched on duringWednesday’s meeting.

Dr. Hank Bounds, director of the state’s Institutions of HigherLearning, said education is way out of the current economiccrisis.

“We cannot afford to have three to four years of difficulties tohave long-term effects on the viability of our state,” Boundssaid.

Eric Clark, chairman of the state Board of Community and JuniorColleges, cited enrollment increases at the state’s 15 communitycolleges. He said there has been a 13 percent increase since lastfall.

Clark said community colleges are the “silver bullet” to helpthe state recover faster and stronger.

“We are helping our people off welfare and out of minimum wagejobs,” Clark said.

Regarding K-12 education, Wilson talked about working plans thatare in place to improve graduation rates and studentachievement.

He also mentioned a proposal to have new teachers work 30 years,instead of the current 25, before being able to retire. He said thesavings would allow improved salaries on the front end in exchangefor working longer on the back end.

Wilson also touted the success of Brookhaven’s MississippiScholars program, which encourages students to pursue more rigorousclasses while in school.

“This community is incredible,” Wilson said. “You are the envyof every community that participates in the state.”

Transportation issues were the final topic mentioned.

Mike Pepper, executive director of the state roadbuildersassociation, said the goal is to have 75 percent of a state’s roadsrated as in good condition. Only 42 percent of Mississippi arerated in that category, he said.

Southern District Transportation Commissioner Wayne Brown, whowas in the audience Wednesday, echoed road and bridge concerns. Helamented increases in materials costs yet relatively unchangedrevenue totals for highway leaders.

“We’re fast becoming a department of maintenance,” Brownsaid.

Area state lawmakers Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith and Reps. Bobby Moakand Sam Mims expressed appreciation for the input provided tolegislators by the MEC. They acknowledged some difficult timesahead as they work through the budget concerns next year.

“We’re going to have some very tough decisions,” Mims said.